It’s no secret that one year ago campus looked a lot different. You could recognize your friends and passers-by since no one was wearing masks. There weren’t as many hand sanitizer stations let alone any “HERE” signs or posters indicating the full force of the pandemic we now find ourselves in. The only texts you’d get from Notre Dame were Weather and Emergency Alerts.
And swarms of hungry students ready to swipe their ID cards were crowding the dining halls for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Today, heated tents replace the traditional indoor dining experiences once offered by the dining halls and other on-campus restaurants. Buffet style is no longer offered either, with packaged meals in containers in its place to ensure the health and safety of students and workers.
The packaged meals in containers were a big area of concern for Campus Dining and the Office of Sustainability last semester.
“Last semester was really tough because we were in crisis response mode,” said Allison Mihalich, the senior program director of sustainability. “We were simply trying to get students fed and nourished safely without any fear or concerns of COVID-19.”
But the previously used compostable containers weren’t a sustainable option. There is no industrial complex facility in the region to help break down the containers into something reusable, so they were ending up in the landfill.
The Office of Sustainability and Campus Dining knew they had to pivot away from the compostable containers and find a more sustainable option.
Now, meal options are packaged in Mineral Filled Polypropylene (MFPP) containers, which contain 50% less plastic than No. five recyclables and are made in Minnesota.
“While we can’t do traditional recycling with the Mineral Filled Polypropylene … we have close proximity to something called Brightmark Energy where it can be converted to an ultra-low sulphur diesel fuel,” said Mihalich. “While we don’t want to be in the business of generating fuel, it is better than, in terms of an emissions standpoint, better than single-use anything sitting in the landfill.”
The new MFPP containers get diverted by Notre Dame’s waste and recycling haulers to the Brightmark Energy facility in Ashley, Indiana where they undergo a process called pyrolysis.
Pyrolysis is a type of chemical recycling that involves heating hydrocarbon-based materials in an oxygen-free environment. Through this process, materials are broken down to their core components and then used to produce products that can be combusted for fuel, according to Caitlin Jacobs, the associate program manager for the Office of Sustainability. In other words, pyrolysis can isolate the petroleum products present in all plastic, such as the plastic found in the MFPPs, to give those products a second use.
“In terms of thinking about overall embodied emissions, embodied plastic in the whole process, this was a good option,” said Jacobs. “It just kind of cuts down on the overall amount of plastic involved in the process, even though it’s still a large volume of waste, we thought that that was an okay choice for the lifecycle perspective.”
These containers are just temporary. Campus Dining and the Office of Sustainability are working to figure out what criteria needs to be met in order to return to reusable, according to Mihalich. As a measure to try and alleviate the increased packaging in the tented dining halls, the MFPPs are the best adaptive strategy for the interim.
“Hopefully next year we are not going to be using the sheer numbers of disposables, we’re going to go back to washing dishes again,” said Cheryl Bauer, the director of sourcing and sustainability for Campus Dining. “We’re trying to adjust to the world that we live in today and make it the best we can.”
The pandemic has also posed a challenge to the Grind2Energy system on campus.
The system was implemented in the spring of 2019 to reduce non-consumable food waste on campus by more than 2,000 pounds per day while contributing to the clean energy needs of a local farm. Three systems were installed outside of the Center for Culinary Excellence (CCE) and both dining halls.
Each system consists of a processing sink, grinder and 5,000-gallon outdoor holding tank. Food scraps from the dining halls and CCE are fed to the holding tanks after being processed, as if put into a blender to create a slurry that is piped to the tank. Once the tanks are full they are emptied to a septic hauler that pumps the waste into a septic truck. The truck then transports the waste to a local farm where it is converted to energy such as electricity.
By diverting food waste from the local landfills, the Grind2Energy systems were initially projected to reduce overall campus-wide waste by 10%, about 400 tons per year.
The new on-campus dining measures, however, have caused the Grind2Energy systems to capture 30% to 40% less post-consumer scraps than before. Students don’t always eat their prepackaged meals in the tents, sometimes they take them back to their rooms and thereby generate food waste that can’t be captured. Moreover, in the tents, leftover food is no longer being scraped from plates and food trays.
However, there are still approximately six to nine tons of food scraps being captured per month, which is continuously being diverted and then converted into energy. Still, the substantial decrease in food scrap diversion remains a challenge to overcome.
The Office of Sustainability and Campus Dining are working to figure out how to get students to bring their food scraps back to green bins as a next phase for Grind2Energy, according to Mihalich.
“At the end of the day, our main goal is to keep our students happy,” said Bauer. “I know that being sustainable is a part of that equation."